Working With Emergence

“Think of a formation of migrating birds that knows the way across oceans and continents to its far-away destination, and the pathfinding capacity of which resides not in the individual birds but somewhere in the connection between them.” 

– Anna Katharina Schaffner

On this month, a century ago, T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land, one of his most famous poems. Its meaning still resonates today. Written in the shadow of the first world war and the devastating Influenza Pandemic, the poem describes a fragmented world, one of loss and devastation, where culture has become meaningless. 

Fast forward a century and we find ourselves in an eerily similar meta-crisis of climate collapse, war, disease and hunger. And the loss that is felt today is also loss of trust in our system, in top-down authority, in the old narratives, including the work of NGOs and other forms of social activism. 

This general malaise also relates to our scepticism that someone actually has answers and that our obsession with solutions might have made us part of the problem. It’s easy to fall into despair, but perhaps it would be better to question the things we have taken for granted. 

And this questioning is taking place in more and more spaces, including, of course, among climate activists and those working on adaptation. This might also explain why there are growing movements that seek inspiration and guidance from nature, or living systems, perhaps stemming from the desire for us humans to re-connect with nature. 

Emergence is one such process, or concept, that is found in philosophy, art, systems-thinking and complexity science, and is relevant today to those trying to understand how individual actions grow into powerful collective movements.

Emergence is essentially what happens when individual parts connect and form a greater part. Emergent phenomena create capacities or powers that do not exist in the individual parts. It is how complex systems arise out of simple interactions. So the way ants or bees behave in a hive is emergence, weather patterns are emergent. In our society, culture is an emergent phenomenon.

Margaret Wheatley, whose work on emergence has inspired many initiatives around the world, says that emergence is “how Life creates radical change and takes things to scale.” The way change happens in living systems, she explains, is when different individual components, species, plants and animals in an environment, interact and adapt to changing conditions, changes to predators, to rainfall. Change happens when the individual and the collective come together to use their intelligence and senses. 

However, this is not how we humans think change occurs. Our assumptions are that change is linear, it can be preconceived, planned and executed top-down. We try to bring about change incrementally, we develop rules, laws, our own theories of change, all in very nonadaptive ways. We think we can change the system by working backwards, but that’s like trying to remove the eggs from a cookie; we can’t, that’s reductionist thinking. All you can do, Wheatley argues, is start over.

As an organisation, she suggests it might mean we return to our identity, to the source, reclaiming what we believe in. This process, she says, always establishes direction and purpose in inspired and clear ways. 

Also, instead of developing social entrepreneurs individually as leaders and skillful practitioners, we would do better to connect them to like-minded others and create the conditions for emergence. The skills and capacities needed by them will be found in the system that emerges, not in better training programmes.

Writer and activist Adrienne Maree Brown who founded the The Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute invites people to think about change as a constant state of being, and one which runs counter to the competitive, power-over, urgency culture of capitalism, which is disconnected, into a liberatory experience which is resilient, relational and adaptive.

For her, an emergent strategy asks: “how do we get in a right relationship with change that allows us to harness and shape things towards community, towards liberation, towards justice?” 

The curators at The Emergence Network have created a space for post-activism, a place where we start from the understanding that the way we respond to the crisis is part of the crisis, that we cannot continue the way we have and we must embrace and use lostness for emergence. 

Working with emergence asks us to pay better attention, to notice and harness what we discover. It asks us to learn as we go along, not to grasp for solutions, but adapt and be comfortable with uncertainty.

Despite its darkness, The Waste Land is also a poem about regeneration and about what might emerge from darkness. For many readers, the poem is an invitation to question whether fragments of the old order can ever be reassembled or whether, to move on, we need to start again.

In Elliot’s own words: What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?

Words Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

For references and further resources, visit our inspiration page.